Madhusudana Saraswati: Advaita-vada and Bhakti

From the point of view of the Indian jnani tradition, Madhusudana Saraswati has some interesting things to say on the complementarity of the different spiritual paths in his introduction to Gūḍhārtha-dīpikā, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

Madhusudana is an interesting figure. The story goes that he was born in Bengal in 1490 AD (I suspect a bit later) in Faridpur, now in Bangla Desh. He went to meet Chaitanya in Nabadwip, but Mahaprabhu had already left Nabadwip by the time he got there. Madhusudana stayed in Nabadwip for a while, studying Nyāya, the speciality of the place, but remaining deeply devoted to Krishna. From there he went to Benares to further his studies. He became convinced of the Advaita philosophy, but remained a devotee at the same time. This devotional strand shows in his interpretations of the Gita, his commentary on the Bhagavatam, and other works like Bhakti-rasāyana.

As Atmaramananda Swami says in his introduction to the Adwaita Ashram edition of Gūḍhārtha-dīpikā, “…these intellectual pursuits, instead of making Madhusudana content with dry scholarship, increased his spiritual hunger.”

In the introduction to the Gita, Madhusudana proposes (perhaps for the first time—I do not see it in Ramanuja, Shankara or Sridhara Swami) the threefold division of the Gita into six-chapter sections dealing with karma, bhakti and jñāna respectively. This division was subsequently accepted in part by Vishwanath Chakravarti, and so it is known to us. Madhusudana’s original argument, though, is that karma on its own does not have sufficient power to lead the sādhaka to jñāna, and so bhakti is necessary to act as a bridge between the two.

First of all, Shankaracharya makes several points in his own introduction or upodghāṭa to the Gita that are quite interesting. Although I have looked at several translations and not seen it clearly brought out, there is a Vaishnava (Narayana/Vasudeva) slant to Shankara’s introduction that can be observed in three different places, at the beginning, middle and end. It begins with the words nārāyaṇaḥ paro’vyaktāt, which means that Narayan is beyond both the manifest and unmanifest forms of creation. In the middle, when he talks about Narayana incarnating as Krishna, the words he uses are basically those of Gita 4.6 (ajo’pi san, etc.).

But the most remarkable of Shankara’s statements comes at the end of the introduction. After explaining that the nivṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma of sannyāsa is the means and ātma-jñāna-niṣṭha the ultimate goal of the Gita’s teachings, and that the pravṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma about self-purification leading to that goal, Shankara concludes,

paramārtha-tattvaṁ ca vāsudevākhyaṁ para-brahmābhidheya-bhūtaṁ viśeṣato'bhivyañjayad viśiṣṭa-prayojana-sambandhābhidheyavad gītā-śāstram | yatas tad-artha-vijñānena samasta-puruṣārtha-siddhiḥ |

The Gita shastra, through its special (viśiṣṭa) object (prayojana), interrelations and stated signification, reveals especially that the supreme truth named Vasudeva is the Param Brahma and the object of knowledge delineated in it (abhidheya). From realized knowledge of this meaning, one achieves success in attaining all goals of human life.
Here the use of sambandha, abhidheya (= viṣaya), and prayojana are the standard terms that form a part of the anubandha-chatuṣṭaya, by which a book's purpose, etc., are outlined. (The fourth being adhikāra.)

Madhusudana considers himself to be a follower of Shankara, and his own series of 45 introductory verses can be seen as a commentary on Shankara’s upodghāṭa.

sa-hetukasya saṁsārasyātyantoparamātmakam |
paraṁ niśreyasaṁ gītā-śāstrasyoktaṁ prayojanam ||
sac-cid-ānanda-rūpaṁ tat pūrṇaṁ viṣṇoḥ paraṁ padam |

[Shankara said that] the purpose of the Gita is to attain the supreme good, which is defined as the complete cessation of saṁsāra and its causes. That goal is known as the supreme abode of Vishnu, the form of eternal life, consciousness and bliss. (2-3)

This statement resumes fairly well the entirety of Shankara’s commentary. There is no hint that he considers Vishnu’s param padam to be figurative, metaphorical, secondary, relative, functional, vyavahārika, gauṇa, or anything else but its direct and immediate meaning.

Let us now follow Madhusudan as he summarizes the teachings of the Gita, filling in a number of elements from it that have been skipped in Shankara’s own preface. The Veda, says Madhusudan, is divided into three kandas—karma, upasti and jñānam—and the Gita can be similarly divided into three parallel sections.

karma-niṣṭhā-jñāna-niṣṭhe kathite prathamāntyayoḥ ||
yataḥ samuccayo nāsti tayor ativirodhataḥ|
bhagavad-bhakti-niṣṭhā tu madhyame parikīrtitā ||

Commitment (niṣṭhā) to karma and jñāna are described in the first and last of these sections since there is no direct correlation between the two, as they are completely opposed to one another. Therefore commitment to bhakti to Bhagavan is glorified between them. (5-6)
ubhayānugatā sā hi sarva-vighnāpanodinī |
karma-miśrā ca śuddhā ca jñāna-miśrā ca sā tridhā ||7||

Bhakti follows both and rids each of all obstacles. It is of three kinds: mixed with karma, pure and mixed with jñāna. (7)
Shankara’s text did not specifically mention bhakti at all, though he did mention pravṛtti and nivṛtti. So here Madhusudan is trying to accommodate bhakti into this schema. This threefold division of bhakti could only have come from a Vaishnava sampradāya, but he is not specific about what he means. Nevertheless, from the context, it looks like he is saying that bhakti runs through the entire Gita, where it manifests as karma-miśra, pure, and jñāna-miśra respectively within the Gita's three divisions. The anuga in this verse would thus mean, the subject of bhakti follows through the discussion of the two other subjects.

The first six chapters explain the process of renouncing karmas, and the purification of knowledge of the tvam-padārtha, i.e., what is meant by “thou” in the statement “thou art That,” i.e., the individual soul. The second section, in which bhakti is described, is about learning what bhagavan, the supreme joy, i.e., the tat-padārtha, the “that” in “thou art That,” is all about. The third section explains the identity between the two, the “art” (asi).

Madhusudan then draws a more explicit outline of the Gita’s path of self-realization. It starts with the performance of niṣkāma-karma, the primary meaning of which is given as the renunciation of forbidden actions and those that are purely materialistic in purpose, but includes on the positive side duties of japa and praises of Lord Hari. Here we can see that since bhakti is a positive engagement of the senses, body and mind, it is within Shankara’s realm of pravṛtti-lakṣaṇa-dharma, albeit seen as one that has certain purificatory properties that distinguish it from karma per se, even the karma that renounces the fruits of action.

When the mind becomes progressively free of sin, it becomes capable of discrimination and distinguishing between what is eternal and what is not (nityānitya-viveka). When that becomes strong, one becomes detached from both this and future worlds, a state that is given the name vaśīkāra (the ability to control). Here it should be noted that Madhusudan is using a term that comes directly from the Yoga-sūtra (1.15). This is an important feature of his commentary in general, but it also has a bearing on his view of the role of bhakti, as we shall see.

When one has acquired the qualifications of mind and sense-control, etc., one becomes fixed in sannyāsa. Here again, Madhusudan touches base with Shankara, whose own description of the ultimate good or the complete cessation of saṁsāra and its causes is sannyāsa, for which he cites several passages from the Anugita (in Mahabharata 14) and Gita 18.66.

In this way, through the renunciation of all worldly things, a solid desire for liberation arises and one then takes the steps of approaching a guru and learning from him. In order to eradicate doubts, one should hear the Vedanta Sutra, etc.; all texts dealing with Vedanta philosophy are useful in this process. As this study matures one becomes fixed in nididhyāsana or profound meditation on the Truth. The whole of Yoga scripture is also used up (upakṣīṇa) at this stage.

When the disqualifications of the mind are even further reduced, one’s mind becomes fixed in the truth through hearing the mahāvākyas, through sound one attains direct knowledge called nirvikalpa. Ignorance or avidyā comes to cessation, knowledge of the truth arises, and with the dissipation of the coverings, error and doubt are also dissipated. All anārabdha-karmas are destroyed and no new karmas are created by the power of this knowledge of the truth.

Due to the influence of prārabdha-karmas, certain desires or vāsanas do not disappear, but due to the strength of self-control in the advanced renunciate, they are kept in check. This self-control (saṁyama) is composed of three parts: dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi [the last three of the eight aṅgas of yoga, See YS 3.4]. Although the five yamas (YS 2.30) are prerequisite to this achievement, samādhi will be quickly attained through īśvara-praṇidhānāt (YS 1.23, 2.45). This reference to the Yoga-sūtra is to the element of bhakti; Although many translations of praṇidhāna are possible, Vyasa's gloss is bhakti-viśeṣāt.

At this stage, the mind is "destroyed" and the vāsanās are also eradicated, and when knowledge of Reality is practiced along with these two, one’s implantation as a jīvan-mukta is solid. This is why renunciation in knowledge (vidvat-sannyāsa) is mentioned in the Upanishads, so that whichever of these three elements is missing should be carefully worked on. [Note: Madhusudan uses the term vidvat-sannyāsa several times in the Gita 2.70, 3.1, 18.4, 18.14, etc., but I could not find a direct reference in Shruti or Shruti commentaries.]

At this point Madhusudan uses the terms sa-vikalpa and nirvikalpa-samādhi. It is at this stage that the former, which had already been attained, is replaced by the latter, in its three stages or bhūmis: in the first he can be awakened by others, in the second he can awaken himself, in the last, he remains ever absorbed. At this stage he can be called a Brahmin, the best of the expounders of Vedanta. He is said to be beyond the three gunas, is sthita-prajña, and a devotee of Vishnu! (Weren’t expecting that, were we?)

evaṁ-bhūto brāhmaṇaḥ syād variṣṭho brahma-vādinām |
guṇātītaḥ sthita-prajño viṣṇu-bhaktaś ca kathyate ||28||

Here Madhusudan uses many of the flash words from the tradition: He is beyond Varnashram, he is a living liberated soul (jīvanmukta), he takes pleasure in the self (ātma-rati). The scriptures have nothing to say to such a person because he is entirely fulfilled (kṛta-kṛtya).

At this point, in keeping with verses in the Upanishads like yasya deve parā bhaktiḥ, etc. (Sve.U. 6.23), devotion to Bhagavan in all circumstances with body, mind and words is appropriate. The verse from Svetasvatara is the first full quotation in this intro.

pūrva-bhūmau kṛtā bhaktir uttarāṁ bhūmim ānayet |
anyathā vighna-bāhulyāt phala-siddhiḥ sudurlabhā ||32||
The devotion that was performed at an earlier stage must now be brought to this higher stage. If not, because of the abundance of obstacles, success in attaining the fruit [of one’s sadhana] will be unlikely.
It still seems that although Madhusudan is treating bhakti as utilitarian at this elevated stage, it is nevertheless quite a novelty to see bhakti enter the picture again at the stage of nirvikalpa-samādhi. He goes on to quote Gita 6.44-45 about being born again and achieving the goal after many births and states that in cases where spiritual achievements are seen in someone as a result of previous lives’ saṁskāras, as though they fell like fruit from the sky, that these should not be questioned. They are the results of previous lifetimes of practice.

Then again, in verse 36, Madhusudan reiterates:

evaṁ prāg-bhūmi-siddhāv apy uttarottara-bhūmaye |
vidheyā bhagavad-bhaktis tāṁ vinā sā na siddhyati ||36||
jīvan-mukti-daśāyāṁ tu na bhakteḥ phala-kalpanā |
adveṣṭṛtvādivat teṣāṁ svabhāvo bhajanaṁ hareḥ ||37||
Although after each stage is attained, in order to obtain the subsequent level, bhagavad-bhakti is always prescribed, for without it success cannot be attained. Nevertheless, when one comes to the stage of jivan-mukti, no result for bhakti can be imagined. Just like the qualities of non-enmity are natural to the liberated soul, so too is the bhajan of Lord Hari.

And at this point, he quotes the famous ātmārāma verse from the Bhāgavatam, as though inheriting the tradition of Prakashananda Saraswati:

ātmārāmāś ca munayo nirgranthā apy urukrame |
kurvanty ahaitukīṁ bhaktim itthaṁ-bhūta-guṇo hariḥ ||

Sages who take pleasure in the self and who are freed from all bondage, still perform causeless devotional service to Urukrama, for such are the divine attributes of Lord Hari. (1.7.10)

And that is followed by the Gita 7.17: “Of these, the person in knowledge is most dear to me. He is always joined with me, for by his singular devotion, he differentiates himself from all the others.”

All these things have been taught in the Gita, and therefore I am most enthusiastic to explain it. This again mirrors Shankara’s words in his upodghāṭa, as do his description of the grief and bewilderment that are afflicting Arjuna.

So, there is certainly a lot of food for thought in this description, by a jnani, of a path leading to Krishna bhakti. It resembles very much the verse 18.55 which states that after becoming brahma-bhūta one can attain “the highest” devotion for Krishna.

I find it interesting because I believe that Madhusudan is on to something here. That whatever particular path you follow to attain ultimate devotion, there is a stage called brahma-bhūta that must be passed through. There are some doctrinal differences here and there in his schema, but I have brought it up here because of the ideas that preceded this interlude into Madhusudan.



Anonymous said…

I am really happy that you took the time to look this up. As a Western educated person I have the mind pattern, vasana, of "compare and contrast" or we seek several sources to corrobate evidence that we have experienced to validate the phenomena, in a scholarly way.

I read about Savikalpa samadhi in 2002 and thank Goddess I did because I was going through it. Anyway now is kind of old hat and just hope I can keep on having the kind fo lifestyle I can at least stay in Savikalpa. I am not in a hurry to get to Nirvikalpa.

However the teacher that I read his books about Savikalpa does not say very much about the next stages or steps. It must be a secret that he saves for his monastics or maybe he never went very far after it himself although he claims to have attained Nirvikalpa. If he did attain Nirvikalpa then seems like he would have more to say about it?

At any rate I keep trying to find out more about the next stage just to have a heads up on the general direction and path. So I really appreciate what you shared.

I don't know if this is the wrong thing to say but from what I understand there are 14 currents that travel up the spine and lead to the door of Brahma. Each current corresponds to a specific sampradaya of yoga.

So for example the Gaudiyas have their different factions, you can tell the people who argue alot about which faction is better have not gotten to the door of Brahma. Because if they did they would understand that the practices work and all they have to do it "just do it" as Nike says [the Roman goddess of Victory].

But as all the sampradayas lead to the door of Brahma, then once you have done that enough times is possible you may wish to change your Istha Devata. And also you see the door of Brahma is only a door. There are the Seven Chakras above the Sahasrara after that.

Well I'm not in a big hurry to prematurely go there but I do really appreciate your sharing about this. Is like when you are in high school or even grade five, or even trying to get into the right private preschool, is not too early to at least be thinking about your future.

Also I would be interested to learn more about Nada Yoga, if you ever run into any stuff about that or have any talks with your mentor about that.

You don't have to post this but just letting you know that I appreciate the knowledge you are sharing. I don't feel that it is wise to tell the whole world what your realizations are, the instructions I got is we should only tell the person who is helping us on the path.

But I seem to outgrow everyone who helps me on the path. So right now I do not have anyone to confide in the stuff about it. And is kind of dangerous to tell the wrong person or tell someone who is more immature than you but in a higher position externally.

Also I appreciated your post about God that fills in the gaps. It is very difficult for my family to understand that someone who is highly gifted and talented in Intra-personal Intelligence [Dr. Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences] is related to them.

Because I look like a normal person and kind of even act sort of retarded sometimes. Well because the person with Intra-personal Intelligence lives 2/3rds of the time within the self and only 1/3 of the time in the outside world.

So they become exasperated with me. So is nice that idea of God of the gaps. Then I can explain [will be like the one millionth explanation] well see I am disappointed in life about this that and the other, this is filling in the gaps.

Then they can continue to feel superior to me I guess by virtue of their giftedness in other areas society values more.

Aum Aum
Anonymous said…
Thank you for your years of devotion and study.You have made a observed very astutely into the relationship between Bhakti and Jnana.Both lead to the same cosmic union of shiva and shakti in the sahasrara(rarified ether of satchidananda)Supreme Bhakti for visnu is supreme Bhakti for Shiva as is supreme Bhakti for Mother.But your intended insertion of Brahma Jnana as a inferior realization to Visnu Padam is a distortion of your defective Gaudiya vision.
If you had an advaitic vision as the saints you are writing about Sri Shankara and Sri Madhusudhana, you will never try to attach such distortions to their teaching.
Thank you for your magnanimity to relate Bhakti and Jnana.Please read the gospel of Sri Ramakrsna to clarify your doubts.Hariom Tat Sat.devananda giri
Jagadananda Das said…
Dear Yogirajji,

I don't distort Madhusudana or Shankara. However, Krishna himself says in 6.46-47 that the yogi is superior to the jnani, karmi and tapasvi, and that the bhakta is best of yogis, most closely united with Him. And 18.55 says that after attain brahma realization, one is eligible for parA bhakti. Also in 14.27, he states that he is the foundation of Brahman, so establishing that he is the Param Brahman. Arjuna also accepts that Krishna is the Param Brahman in 10.12, citing other authorities also.

There are many other statements in the Gita like this. But what is the point of arguing? I speak for the devotees. If you cannot see that the rasa of Krishna-bhakti is qualitatively superior, that is your own bad luck.

Bhagavata Purana says that the One Truth is known as Brahman, Paramatman and Bhagavan, as sat, chit and ananda. But rasa is experienced in a superior way in Bhagavan, because there the fullest love of God and devotee are manifest. Therefore, only through a causeless, unbroken, timeless personal relationship with God, which is not seen as a means to something else, like mukti, bhukti or siddhi, can one experience the Ananda that we have all been searching.

Radhe Radhe! May you have joy and fulfillment on your own path.
Radhe Krishna said…
This is a very well balanced and nicely written article. Thanks and pranams to your effort. There is a work names prabhodha sudhakara attributed to Sri Shankara Acharya. It is a very interesting text with a Krishna Bhakti slant. There are chapters like saguNa nirguNa abhedha nirUpaNam etc that establish Bhagavan Krishna as the supreme. Might be worth reading for poeple interested in this article.

I have not read Sri Madhusudhana Saraswati's Bhakti rasayana. If someone can point to a publication I would be very greatful.

! Radhe Krishna !
Jagadananda Das said…
There is an unedited Sanskrit version on the Grantha Mandir.
Anonymous said…
"Shankara’s text did not specifically mention bhakti at all"

From Shankara Gita comment just before vers 18.56:
"That Yoga of Devotion [bhakti-yoga] to the Lord [bhagavad] is now being praised in this concluding section dealing with the purport of the Scripture, with a veiw to generating a firm conviction with regard to it"

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